Wildfire experts in Northern New Mexico are urging the community to prepare for a hot, dry summer with potentially worse conditions than previous years, and they say the idea of a wildfire “season” is slowly dissipating as climate change makes the state’s forests more susceptible to blazes year-round.
The Santa Fe area saw its first fire March 9, followed by a Sandoval County fire on March 21 that burned at least 6 acres before it was extinguished.
So far this year, there have been 80 wildfires in New Mexico that have burned over 2,000 acres, a concerning early start to the season as the last one seemingly just ended when 2020’s 543rd fire burned near Taos in October.
Wendy Mason, wildfire prevention and communications coordinator for the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, said this year is concerning due to the state being in the middle of an “ecological drought.”
This type of drought means water retention in soil has been significantly reduced, leading to an increase in plant die-off and insect outbreaks that weaken and kill trees, making them more susceptible to fires, according to the National Climate Adaptation Science Center.
“It just underlines the fact that this is why it’s imperative that New Mexicans and visitors to our state take precautions to help prevent any … wildfires from starting,” she said. “We’ve already been busy this month.”
Local fire departments are predicting this year to be potentially worse than 2020. Nathan Miller, wildland superintendent with the Santa Fe Fire Department, said after evaluating weather outlooks and models, this year may be worse than the last three.
“I’m gonna say this will be as active as last year, if not worse. The kind of models that we’ve seen are predicting the year to be a bit like 2016,” he said.
New Mexico saw 620 wildfires that year, burning over 110,000 acres, according to the State Forestry Division.
Fire departments are no longer worried only about the summer. Officials from the U.S. Forest Service and the Santa Fe County and city fire departments agreed the fire season is shifting into something that is year-round.
Lance Elmore, a forest fire staff officer, has worked at the U.S. Forest Service for over 20 years and has seen significant changes along the way.
“The length of the fire season is obviously a trend that has gone up since I started my career,” he said. “Typically, come July and the monsoons, you didn’t really worry about large fires. We always had fires after that month, lightning type stuff, but they were relatively small. You didn’t see a lot of these larger September, October type fires then as you have in the past several years.”
In order to deal with the nearly yearlong fire risk, city and county departments work through every season on preventive measures and assessing private property where landowners want to diminish the risk.
Some of those measures include clearing excess underbrush, doing prescribed burns and managing areas of high-risk dead vegetation.
“We prepare for the worst,” said county fire wildland Capt. Mike Feulner. “We know that this is going to be a tough season just based on drought fuel conditions and things like that, and we try to look at where we can to support in the offseason preparing for it.”
Fighting wildfires is a complex, multiorganizational endeavor. It takes cooperation from local fire departments, the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Indian Affairs, to name a few. The Forestry Division even set up a resource plan to use bulldozers and water canisters from the Department of Transportation.
But one of the most influential factors in wildfire prevention and mitigation, experts say, is the public. Without proper awareness and education, a careless mistake could be devastating.
Activities like welding outdoors, grilling, using a cutting torch or even parking a car over an area of dry grass have been known to start fires. According to Mason and her department’s data, 98 percent of the fires this year were caused by people.
Elmore emphasized a need for the outdoors community to pay attention to fire restrictions, particularly with the pandemic bringing a higher number of people into the forests.
“We did see a lot of folks that did not have a lot of [experience] in camping and camping safely with campfires,” he said. “Those [restrictions] are put into place not lightly, but to help reduce the risk of large catastrophic fires.”
While the public may be the largest threat, it is also the solution. Private property owners getting risk assessments and fire mitigation work done on their homes — or utilizing the various resources provided by the forest service and local fire departments — are just a few of the ways that Santa Fe citizens can be proactive, experts say.
“We’ll go out to the homeowners and look at their property and kind of give them a suggestion of what we think they need to [have] done to their property to help mitigate their issue and reduce the risk [of] fire,” Miller said. “The public can always reach out to us to schedule a time that we can come and do an assessment.”
Miller was unable to provide a number of private landowners in Santa Fe who use the department’s help, but said the city wildland team is out three to four times a week during the year working on property assessments or fuel mitigation.
Feulner also highlighted the county’s Ready, Set, Go! program, which helps families create a prevention and escape plan in case of an emergency and is available on the county’s website.
Overall, local firefighters and forest experts say the year will present many challenges with these extreme environmental factors, but they urge the Santa Fe community to take advantage of local resources to help mitigate risk.
“We need everyone to take responsibility to prevent wildfires, to protect our communities and our firefighters who are putting their lives on the line every time they go out,” Mason said. “It only takes one spark.”